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Groove Is In The Art: Bua combines graffiti style with jazz cool.

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From breakdancer and graffiti artist to acclaimed painter, Justin Bua is a master of urban art

By Mike Connor

IF MICHAELANGELO were alive today, his Sistine Chapel might be a bomb-ass mural on the side of a subway car. The Ninja Turtle's namesake is probably rolling in his grave right now, antsy for Judgement Day to come so he can rise from the dead and try his hand with this stuff we call "spray paint." I'm sure he'd welcome the technology--frescoes had to be such a pain in the ass, what with all that wet plaster and gooey natural pigment.

But even Michaelangelo would have trouble getting the art world to take his bomb graffiti seriously. That's the kind of attitude Justin Bua is up against--a veritable master of modern style, he's struggled throughout his career to win some respect for the graffiti form.

Born in 1968 and raised in New York City's Upper West Side, Bua, a former professional breakdancer and graffiti writer, has developed his artistic skills into a style he calls Distorted Urban Realism, which blends elements of graffiti art and caricature stylization with a distinctly urban, hip-hop flavor. In anticipation of his upcoming trip to Santa Cruz for a signing at Picture Appeal on Sept. 7, Metro Santa Cruz caught up with Bua to talk about the state of his art.

Metro Santa Cruz: You're having a lot of success in the more mainstream circles of the art world now. Do you still believe in graffiti as an outlaw art form?

Justin Bua: I'm doing a piece right now entitled The Artist. I thought of other names for it: Sneaking in the Yards, Bombing the One Lines, New Lots Avenue--I used to write graffiti back in the days. But I just called it The Artist. I'm talking about somebody who does burners. By doing the piece and by validating this character as an artist, I think that says it all. I think that graffiti is definitely a form of art. You have Michaelangelo representing Adam and Eve and all these biblical references in classical art, and I'm documenting the graffiti writer. I'm saying that he's just as much a rock star as any rock star. I'm just representing these kind of characters from the hip-hop world who I consider celebrities. Some people may not consider breakdancers celebrities, but I do. I'm working on this piece where I got this guy doing a windmill and he's front and center, and he's a celebrity to me.

What do you think of the proliferation of so-called 'corporate graffiti?'

I've done Nike campaigns, I've done billboard campaigns, but I refuse to do anything like that anymore. I have no belief in the value system of that. You see Mickey D's ads in the ghettos next to the liquor store. It's all economics and capitalism just trying to soften the people, in my mind. Those billboards are the people's enemy--McDonalds, the fast food chains and that kind of stuff. Most advertisements are about the dollar bill. I won't do it anymore, wouldn't do it for a million dollars. I don't have any corporate branding either. I keep it all real, keep it all raw. And something's right, because I sell more posters than anybody in America and Canada.

Your style really seems to capture something about life in the city. What message are you trying to convey about urban culture?

First of all, there's a lot of multiculturalism in my work. I'm from New York City, what FDR called a melting pot. I call my generation a melting pot that already melted. I think that is the new wave of kids now. People aren't relating to the fact that they're black, white, yellow or green, they relate to being urban. My characters are very ethnically ambiguous. The geometric rhythms are very much the rhythms of graffiti, subway car graffiti. At the same time there's a classical composition with the painting, like classical composition hybridized with the rhythms of breaking and graffiti. All these elements mixed with this claustrophobic landscape, that's how I see the inner city, there's a kind of musicality about the architecture, and yet there's a stifling aspect about them, too. Sometimes you can't even see a slice of sky, you know what I'm saying?

How do you see the connection between music--especially jazz--and your paintings?

Goethe, he once said that architecture is frozen music. Well if that is true, then my paintings in a certain sense have been defrosted. My architecture has been defrosted, because it moves to its own funky beat, it has a lyricality and a musicality that moves on its own. There's no vanishing point, it's kind of doing what it wants to do in a certain way, but it's doing it within a beat. There's a rhythm to the madness. There's a certain improvisational flavor about it, like jazz. You feel the music, and you have to make the characters in your worlds feel it too, but there's definitely an improvisational quality about breakdancing, just like there is in jazz. It's just a different type of rhythm. It's a little more hard rock, more strong, more b-boy. Cool--now jazz is mad cool, but it's a different kind of cool, I guess. That's why I got into jazz, too, even though I didn't come from that whole era, I latched onto the coolness and the rhythm of it.

Justin Bua & DJ De Nada will appear for a poster signing at Picture Appeal, 823 Pacific Ave. on Saturday (Sept. 7th), 1pm-4pm.

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From the August 28-September 4, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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